February 20th, Burlington, VT. I’d walked through a lot of bad weather and traffic to get here, as the bus doesn’t go all the way to Higher Grounds, the venue that Sam Roberts will play in four hours. Seeing the marquee is like finding manna in the desert – a godsend. I’ve never interviewed a band before and the guy behind the plastic ticketbooth window seems to smell that on me.
“I’m Dave Tafoya, I’m here to interview Sam Roberts.”
He disappears. The venue is clean, and big. Not what I was expecting. Higher Ground’s been around for a few decades and appears to have at one time been a ballroom. There are two stages, Sam and his band only take up one tonight. The door swings shut behind me and there go Dave Nugent, Josh Trager and James Hall – Roberts’ rhythm section. I open my mouth but find no words. I’d met Sam and the band last year when they tried unsuccessfully to sneak me into the Lizard’s Lounge in Boston after having met me earlier in the day. Eric Fares, the impossibly tall keyboard player, had helped me out greatly and made me feel like a part of the band. When he came in the door after his bandmates, I chanced asking his help.
He’d admit later it took him a little while before he remembered me, but, his character hadn’t changed. While trying to remember who I was, he still offered to take me to the tour bus and sort me out. There I meet Denton, Roberts' tour manager. The band filters in and out of the common area of the bus while some horrid American news show tells us the bad word. Dave Nugent and I had a lengthy chat last time around and his greeting is comfortingly amiable – he remembers. This band is unfailingly nice.
“Is the news in Canada this harrowing?”
“Toronto’s got its own problems,” Denton assures me.
I sat there and wondered, for the hundredth time since setting up this interview, how it was going to go. I hoped upon hope that Sam would need very little of my nervously compiled prompting questions. I live under the impression that Canadians have things to say that make the world make sense, and I’m hoping for a minor miracle – Sam will say something, and I’ll get his experience with the band in a nutshell.
When Sam arrives, I get treated to one of the funniest soundchecks I’ve ever seen. James Hall’s comically distorted bass overpowers everyone at first and he knows it. He wears a big grin as the soundman galumphs across the floor and yells the word “down!” to him over the din. When Sam takes the stage, his wife and daughter stand nearby. His daughter, Miriam, is given a pair of cute, pink headphones to cancel the sound of her father’s band. She dances around in her fluffy boots like an Eskimo child, grabs at her father’s guitar strings and makes liberal use of the many stomp pedals at his feet. Eric takes his microphone and lets her sing an emphatic “yeah!” after Sam gives one himself. The spectacle is enough to melt your heart even in the frigid Vermont weather. An inspired version of “No Sleep” later and Sam is off the stage. They will not play this during the set, allowing me to feel like I’ve witnessed something unique. Mother Mother, the eccentrically dressed opener from Vancouver unloads during the soundcheck. A few words with their singers lets me know that I’m not alone in my thinking. Sam and the band have been unendingly kind to them as well, and the whole tour looks to be incredible. Mother Mother had only been to the states a few times, but never in a professional capacity; Sam Roberts made the trip possible. This is truly a miracle band.
Before the interview starts, I’m briefly mistaken as a member of the band by one of the club’s staff members who delivers beer and vodka to the band room where our interview will take place. Sam, in his flannel and intoxicated with the love of his family, opens up to me with no problem. His answers pour out like thawing ice and the interview goes terrifically considering I’ve never done this before. I break the ice with a question I’d been dying to ask ever since I’d first heard about Sam Roberts, the band that had captured the heart of Canada in 2004. The question is a joke, but his answer is real, and he makes it all make sense.
“I have to ask, is it mandatory for guys in the band to have bad-ass black jackets and rugged facial hair?”
“I think it has something to do with just being on the road, you know and the materials you need to survive on the road and the look that seems to coincide or be an outgrowth of just living day to day at a hotel…out of your suitcase. Shaving is just not a priority...”
“Goes right down the list…”
“...nor does it have to be. I’m sure if most bankers or lawyers didn’t have to report to the office every day the way they do, there’d be a lot more beards out there, anyway.”
“I think it should be, as it is.”
“We’re bringing back 19th century beard growth.”
“You gonna do the full length mustache and no beard?”
“You mean the sort of civil war mustache? Could happen. Could happen. I’ve never tested my mustache to that extent, so I don’t really know. We have been tooling around with it. It used to be very consistent in that there was always long hair and always a beard on every single member of the band and then you come to believe that it's a necessary part…it’s almost like a Sampson…in the bible. That if you cut if off…”
“You’ll lose your powers?”
“...you’ll lose your powers. Your career will evaporate in front of your face. But, I don’t think that’s the case. We’re less hesitant to shave if it has to happen, and I’ve done so. Recently, so...”
“I remember turning on the late show in 2004 and you guys played “Don’t Walk Away, Eileen” and I was looking around trying to figure out who was who…”
“And there’s a comfort you can derive from that. In that uniformity. This is also largely a function of touring in Canada during the winter…your scarf isn’t always handy, just an added layer of protection.”
“Being in Vermont for the day makes me realize that I have nothing to complain about if the weather in Canada is anything like this.”
“Just a little worse, actually.”
“Makes me wonder why you leave. You guys are so popular up there, you won the Juno award, your last record debuted at number one, Chemical City went gold. What are the advantages of…or why do you continue to return back to this horrible land of…?”
“Well I don’t see it as that. I think there’s always something of the traveling spirit in the musician. Maybe it’s the old troubadour in all of us that feels the need to take your songs and play for as many people in as many far flung places as you possibly can. There’s a basic drive in all of us to always be on the move. And Canada is, as big as it is, a finite place, and at some point you come to the end of your tether or whatever it is and you have to look outwards and onwards. And for us. Obviously, the natural extension of our career in Canada is to come down here. You got 300 Million people down here who have no idea who the hell we are. Those to me are tantalizing odds.”
“That’s a challenge?”
“That’s a challenge. If there ever was a challenge I figure that’s it. I really enjoy coming down here and starting over. Coming back into small rooms and reconnecting with…I guess the whole idea of what our band has represented over the years, the majority of our life as a band is this: Playing small clubs. Trying to prove yourself. Trying to make something happen Trying to convince people you are band worth getting behind, And so Its basically just a return to what we’ve known, Outside of the last few years up in Canada when things somehow managed to click.”
The Band From Left to Right: James Hall, bass; Josh Trager, drums; Dave Nugent, guitars; Sam Roberts, voice, guitar; Eric Fares, keys.